Introducing a Biocultural Perspective

Explaining Human Diversity. Cultures, Minds, Evolution is an introductory text to social and cultural anthropology from a biocultural perspective. What does that exactly mean? Anthropology is at the crossroads between the humanities and the natural sciences. Many prefer to take one of the roads and forget about the other, as if they were incompatible alternatives. My proposal in this book is to bring them together in a productive synthesis. We can no longer pursue research in cultural anthropology while ignoring the important developments that have taken place in recent decades in the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology and the neurosciences. Similarly, naturalistic approaches to human behavior cannot overlook the most distinctive characteristic of the human species: its meaning-producing capacity.

We can no longer pursue research in cultural anthropology while ignoring the important developments that have taken place in recent decades in the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology and the neurosciences.
My book starts off from the assumption that cultural meaning should be seen, first and foremost, as a biological category, an emergent property of interacting minds. In the same way as mental life (consciousness) is an emergent property of interacting neurons. Evolutionary anthropologists have explored the biological origins of those interacting entities: bodies, brains, etc. Cultural anthropologists, in their turn, have analyzed one of their most intriguing emergent properties, which is normally referred to as culture or cultural knowledge. Ethnography is the intersubjective and particularistic method of research that discloses cultural meaning. And ethnography can be objectified by means of anthropological theory.

There is an unavoidable tension here between the intersubjective and particularistic nature of the ethnographic method and the objectification and generalizing aims of anthropological theory. However, we all accept that this is a productive tension that lies at the heart of what cultural anthropology is all about. Why do particular humans have this or that particular culture? This is the leading question that research in cultural anthropology has tried to answer since the very beginnings of the discipline. But this is a question that stems from a more basic and fundamental one: Why do humans have culture? What does “having a culture” actually mean, if anything? This is the proper question for the natural sciences of the human. Even though it is true that the methods and research techniques of the natural and the social sciences are different and that specialization in one field or the other is unavoidable, my claim in this book is that both types of research must be brought together in a unified explanatory framework. In other words, whereas research in the biological foundations of human cultural behavior cannot ignore the fact that there is no such a thing as “culture” in general or in the abstract, but only particular forms of cultural behavior that can only be apprehended by means of an intersubjective methodology, research in those particular forms of human behavior should not be oblivious to the underlying biological nature of all manifestations of human culture.

My challenge in this book was to bring all of these theoretical ideas, which I believe will lead to the development of the social sciences in the twenty-first century, together in an introductory text to sociocultural anthropology. Three basic theoretical axes sustain the argument of the book. The book starts with the very concept of the human species and how this species should be understood in contradistinction to the rest of living organisms. Key concepts in evolutionary biology are exposed in the first pages of the book in a plain and jargon-free language. The second theoretical target of the book is the human brain, probably the most complex organ that biological evolution has produced in the history of life on this planet. Why do humans have the (very special) brain they have? This is the leading question of this second theoretical target. The study of the human brain takes us to its emergent property, the mind and mental life, which is where meaning originates. But mind is not distinctive of the human species, probably many other species with complex brains do have a mental life of their own. The particularity of human brains is that they interact with each other and hence they produce this form of shared meanings that we call culture: another, second order, emergent property. How do we go about studying this emergent property of interacting minds? Culture as a distinctive form of knowledge characteristic (though not exclusive) of human beings constitutes the third theoretical axis of the book. Ethnography is the method that “discloses” culture and anthropological theory the explanatory tool. The book introduces the reader to the main characteristics of the ethnographic method and to the major classical schools in anthropological theory. The book finishes with a chapter on cultural evolution, perhaps one of the hottest research topics in current social sciences and a theme that nicely brings together modern evolutionary and classical social-scientific approaches to human behavior.

Carles Salazar is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Lleida.

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Cite as: Salazar, Carles. 2018. “Introducing a Biocultural Perspective.” Anthropology News website, October 26, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1013

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